Preston: Maryland championship team understood teamwork

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When the Maryland men's basketball team won its national championship 10 years ago, it was uniquely different than a lot of those won during that era.

The Terps, who finished 32-4 in 2001-02, had no superstars on the roster, and three of the starters — center Lonny Baxter, guard Juan Dixon and forward Byron Mouton — were seniors, a rarity then and even more so now.

It was a collection of role players led by the gritty, veteran trio who weren't afraid to lead, and at times even overruled the head coach, Gary Williams.

"When you look back, the No. 1 thing that stood out was the makeup of the roster," said Johnny Holliday, the play by play broadcaster for the Terps since 1979. "There were no McDonald's High School All-Americans on this roster and there were no big superstars on the team going into the season.

"You had a group of kids that said, 'hey let's all stick together and maybe we can take this to a higher plateau. You didn't see a lot of senior starters on the rosters back then 10 years ago because they saw the bright lights of the NBA, and there are probably even less now. But that's what happened, and it was incredible."

Maryland fans are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Terps' 64-52 championship win over Indiana at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta .

There were many highlights that season from the team's unbeaten streak at home in their last season at Cole Field House to Baxter and Dixon rolling on each other on the court after the final victory.

But you can't forget the roles of Dixon, Baxter and Mouton.

By most standards, Dixon was considered too small to be a shooting guard and not good enough of a ball handler to be a point guard at most major college programs, but he became the sports' most accurate marksman his senior year averaging 20.4 points.

When the game was on the line, Dixon demanded the ball.

Baxter was basically a tweener, too. At 6-foot-8, he should have been a power forward but played center for the Terps. There were some who questioned his height, but never the broadness of his shoulders or his strength to carry a team. Baxter averaged 8.2 rebounds and 15.2 points.

Mouton could play guard or forward and averaged 11 points and five rebounds. He was a fierce competitor, and in a sense, embodied the spirit of the Terps. If they needed a big play block, steal or rebound, he could make it and fire up the crowd at Cole Field House.

They didn't back down from anyone, not even Williams. There were at least two times Williams wanted Dixon to come out of a game and Dixon waived him off. When Dixon once thought Williams had come down too hard on point guard Steve Blake, it was Dixon who told Williams to ease up.

You never forget Baxter asking for a substitute late in the championship game, but then telling Williams no once he got down to the other end of the court because the possession had become so important.

They had passion. Williams was in control, but he allowed them to lead. The Terps also were driven by their nemsis, Duke. The year before, Maryland blew a 10-point lead to the Blue Devils at Cole Field House in the final minute and then blew a 22-point lead in the first half to lose by 11 to Duke in the Final Four.

The choke label was applied.

"I think the turning point of that season came the year before when Maryland lost to Duke, and was knocked out of the tournament," Holliday said. "Those guys got together and made a pact about coming back and winning it all.

"By mid January, the Terps started on this 10 or 11 game-winning streak which included beating Duke at home, and Florida State and North Carolina on the road, and that's when you thought maybe this team could be something special," Holliday said. "Then they lose to N.C. State in the ACC tournament, and you go, 'oh, oh'."

That was just a small bump in the road for a team that was as tough mentally as they were physically, and they played their roles well.

Blake wasn't sensational , but he was more than efficient and played like Baxter and Dixon — as if he had a chip on his shoulder. Maryland had the man-child at power forward in sophomore Chris Wilcox, a superb specimen whose game was played above the rim.

The bench was solid with forwards Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle, and a great 3-point shooter in Drew Nicholas, who had the penchant for making big shots in big games.

The road to the championship wasn't easy as Maryland had to face Wisconsin, Kentucky, Connecticut and Kansas before beating Indiana. The Terps didn't just beat these teams, they crushed them beating Wisconsin by 30, Kentucky by 10, Connecticut by 8 and Kansas by 9.

That was an impressive run in the postseason against some pretty storied programs," Holliday said. "I remember how emotional it was for the players and Gary on that championship night. I remember how they were all crying, and I tried not to because I didn't want to get caught up in the euphoria, but I did.

"I also remember coming back home the next day and there were 10,000 people waiting for us," said Holliday. "As we're driving back on the bus, people were pulling over on the side of the road honking at us. There were helicopters flying over the buses and a huge crowd back at Cole. That was a great way to go out. It was a great time in Maryland sports history."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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